Friday, September 29, 2006

Seconds count

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to DC Comics artist Scott McDaniel, the penciler half (partnered with inker Andy Owens) of the regular art team on Green Arrow. McDaniel and Owens are currently collaborating with writer Tony Bedard on a two-issue story arc in JSA Classified that began in issue 17, released this past Wednesday. Apparently McDaniel, a solid artist and by all accounts a decent fellow, is not important enough to the editorial staff of JSA Classified that his name should be spelled correctly on the cover.

We still like you, Scott.

You know what else we like? Our ever-popular Common Elements themed art series. As Comic Art Friday veterans know all too well, each Common Elements artwork pairs two otherwise unconnected superheroes who share some feature — sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle — in common. (Yes, we've explained this dozens of times before, but there are always new people in the audience. So witcher yappin'.)

The Common Elements artwork featured today teams Julia Carpenter, the second superheroine to use the code name Spider-Woman (she recently began calling herself Arachne, but that's a post for another day), with Michael Holt, the second superhero to dub himself (not too modestly, I might add) Mr. Terrific. This action-packed pencil drawing exploded from the creative genius of artist Lan Medina, best known for his work on the fantasy series Fables.

In the superhero universe, there exists a long and storied tradition of one hero assuming the nom de guerre of an admired predecessor. DC Comics (a.k.a. National Comics way back then) launched the Silver Age of Comics in part by recreating several of the company's heroes from the 1940s, most notably the Flash (arguably the first "modern" superhero), Green Lantern, the Atom, and Hawkman. Although many Americans know that Batman's sidekick Robin began life as a teenaged acrobat named Dick Grayson, only comics aficionados realize that several Robins — I can name three: Jason Todd, Timothy Drake, and Stephanie Brown — have followed in the original's tights. (Dick Grayson is still around, but he calls himself Nightwing now, and he's no longer Batman's... umm... batman.)

The cases of Spider-Woman and Mr. Terrific demonstrate that even relatively minor superheroic identities get recycled. In fact, Julia Carpenter, the Spider-Woman pictured here, was only the second of at least four Marvel Comics characters who've worn the Spider-Woman moniker. As noted above, Julia now uses the code name Arachne, in part because the original Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew, is exercising her superheroism once again after years of inactivity. Of the various Spider-Women, however, Julia has always been my favorite. She's always portrayed as a more accessible, more human personality than the aloof and mysterious Jessica, and the fact that Julia is a single mother raising a young daughter lends her an emotional reality that's refreshing in the fantastic world of costumed world-beaters.

Mr. Terrific, a relatively recent addition to the comics scene, has become a favorite of mine also. Michael Holt takes his fighting identity and "Fair Play" motif from an obscure 1940s hero whose real name was Terry Sloane. Like his predecessor, Holt possesses no superhuman powers, but is a formidably intelligent individual — the "third smartest person in the world" by his own calculation, Holt is something of a modern Doc Savage, with expertise in medicine, engineering, electronics, and various other scientific fields. In many ways, Mr. Terrific can be viewed as an alternate version of Batman: a brilliant man who uses his genius and technical wizardry to battle evil.

Incidentally, the two floating round objects accompanying Holt in the drawing above are T-spheres, robotic devices Mr. Terrific controls using mental commands transmitted through his mask. Holt's T-spheres are more or less the high-tech comic book equivalent of Swiss army knives. Each comes equipped with a camera, a laser, a holographic projector, wireless communications, a data processor, and I think maybe a corkscrew. (I suspect that Mr. Terrific got the idea for T-spheres while watching a showing of Phantasm on late-night cable TV.)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

By the way, if you happen to live in my neck of the woods, my local comics retailer — Comic Book Box in Rohnert Park — is hosting a personal appearance and signing by superstar artist Darick Robertson (currently teaming with writer Garth Ennis on DC's The Boys) Saturday afternoon from 1 to 5 p.m. Rumor has it that Darick may take on a few commission sketches during the event. If I manage to persuade him into doing a sketch for me, you'll see it here soon.


Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Swan Tunes In: Shark

Aside from a 10 p.m. timeslot and a one-word, five-letter title beginning with "S," CBS' new legal drama Shark — the sophomore episode of which airs tonight — shares one more feature in common with Smith, another new crime show on the Eye Network. Both series showcase lead actors better known from their appearances in feature films than for their small-screen work.

Unlike Smith, however, which surrounds headliner Ray Liotta with a superlative, familiar-face cast and a taut, crackling storyline, Shark is pretty much James Woods and not much else.

Unless costar Jeri Ryan offers you two additional reasons to watch.

In Shark, Woods plays Sebastian Stark (and if you can't figure out what his nickname is, you're just not paying attention), a legendary defense attorney who decides to change sides after a client he helped acquit reoffends in violent fashion. Taking control of the Los Angeles District Attorney's newly formed High Profile Cases unit, the Shark assembles a flotilla of eager young prosecutors and proceeds to school them (snicker) in the underhanded legal chicanery that earned him millions.

The main problem with the series, judging by last week's pilot episode (directed by firebrand filmmaker Spike Lee), is that the show's producers (led by Ron Howard's frequent collaborator, Brian Grazer) aren't content to let the Shark be a shark. They're going overboard to soften his rapacious persona by surrounding him with attractive young lawyers and a cute teenage daughter.

Why does that make sense? If I want to see a warm, cuddly TV lawyer, I'll catch a Matlock rerun. My whole reason for switching on Shark is to watch James Woods — one of this generation's most compelling screen presences — at his cutthroat, vicious, antiheroic best. If CBS insists on filing down the Shark's teeth, there won't be much here to hold anyone's interest.

Except, of course, for Jeri Ryan.

My advice to Grazer and company: Back-bench the kids, and let Woods really cut loose. Otherwise, I won't be swimming with Shark by midseason.

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An itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot retraction

You probably heard — not here, of course, but somewhere — that songwriter Paul Vance, the man most famous for penning Brian Hyland's 1960 #1 hit, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," passed away on Tuesday.

Except... he didn't.

Songwriter Paul Vance would like the world to know that he is alive and well and living happily in Coral Springs, Florida, thank you very much.

The man whose death was widely reported, Paul Van Valkenburgh, claimed for years to have written the song using the pen name "Paul Vance." Van Valkenburgh told his wife that he didn't make a fortune on the megahit — which can currently be appreciated by a whole new generation, courtesy of a frequently aired yogurt commercial — because he sold the publishing rights to the song a half-century ago, well before Hyland recorded it.

The real Paul Vance would like the world to know that he did, in fact, make a fortune totaling several million dollars on the tune, which he describes as "a money machine." Vance also composed such other pop classics as Perry Como's "Catch a Falling Star," Clint Holmes's "Playground in My Mind," the Cuff Links' "Do Whatcha Wanna Do," and the Detergents' novelty hit, "Leader of the Laundromat," many in collaboration with his longtime songwriting partner, Lee Pockriss (who is also still alive, though not being impersonated so far as we know).

For her part, Van Valkenburgh's widow, Rose Leroux, is now angry with the real Paul Vance for stealing her late husband's thunder. "Paul can't hurt him now — he's dead," says the embittered Leroux. "If this man is getting the royalties, why wouldn't he be happy?"

Something about preserving his identity, I'm guessing, Rose.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"The finest human being ever to play the game"

They called him Lord Byron, author of the most poetic swing in golf.

Golf legend Byron Nelson has died, at the age of 94.

Because we shared a common religious heritage, I heard a lot about Byron Nelson when I was growing up, and encountered many people through church who knew (or at least had met) him. He was universally spoken of as a kind, gentle man, and one heck of a golfer.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Nelson's success was the fact that he suffered from a weak blood clotting factor — a condition similar to, but less life-threatening than, hemophilia. This genetic anomaly kept him out of military service during World War II, but clearly didn't affect his ability to swing a golf club.

His skein of 11 consecutive PGA tournament wins in 1945 (a year in which Nelson won a phenomenal 18 tournaments overall) stands alongside Cy Young's 511 pitching victories and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak as record unlikely to ever be contested, much less broken.

But for those who knew Nelson, it was his personal grace and modesty that marked him as truly great. He never boasted of his accomplishments, as stellar as they were. He lent his name to a tournament that generated millions of dollars for charity. (The Byron Nelson Classic is the only pro tournament formally named after a golfer, which, when you consider the number of legendary names in the sport's history, speaks volumes.) He was, by all accounts, unfailingly polite and generous with fans and fellow players alike.

I suspect we'll not see his like in professional sports in our generation.

My condolences to Nelson's family, and the members of his home church.

In other golf-slash-death news, Vijay Singh has died.

But not that Vijay Singh.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Swan Tunes In: Heroes

Over at The Nexus of Improbability, the Mysterious Cloaked Figure — MCF to his friends throughout the blogosphere — recently created fantastical renderings of his favorite bloggers as comic book heroes. Needless to say (a stupid turn of phrase, really — if it doesn't need saying, why say it?), I was both honored and charmed to be included in this artistic enterprise.

Behold SwanShadow, the superhero:

Although I haven't appeared nearly this svelte since, say, the Carter administration, I admire the way that MCF captured my essential heroic qualities: stealth, inscrutability, sharp wit, and a fondness for immense bladed weaponry. It's as though the man read my mind. Or saw my knife collection. Of course, he is a Mysterious Cloaked Figure...

Speaking of superheroes, the show I've anticipated most this fall television season premiered last evening. In case you've been off-world for the past two months and have somehow missed the incessant previews for it, Heroes is the dark, twisty tale of a group of otherwise unconnected people who suddenly discover that they possess superhuman powers.

[WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW. If you TiVo'd Heroes last night (or plan to catch the rebroadcast this evening) and don't want key elements of the storyline revealed, bid us farewell for now, then drop back around after you've watched the show.]

Wisely, the series creators chose not to introduce every member of the show's Legion of Super-Heroes in the first one-hour episode. So far, the cast of characters shapes up like this:
  • Character: Hiro Nakamura
    Performer: Masi Oka (Scrubs)
    Occupation: Office worker
    Abilities: The most powerful of the characters, Hiro can manipulate time and space, enabling him to alter the flow of time and to teleport over incredible distances (in the first episode, he transmits himself from a Tokyo subway to New York's Times Square).

  • Character: Claire Bennet
    Performer: Hayden Panettiere (Racing Stripes, Ice Princess)
    Occupation: High school student and cheerleader
    Abilities: Has a healing factor that enables her to recover immediately from any injury, no matter how severe. (Think Wolverine, only without the claws.) She also appears to be impervious to pain.

  • Character: Niki Sanders
    Performer: Ali Larter (Legally Blonde, the Final Destination films)
    Occupation: Webcam stripper (doesn't every show need one?) and single mother to child prodigy Micah (Noah Gray-Cabey)
    Abilities: Hard to tell at this point. Niki has a dual, Jekyll-and-Hyde persona, the hidden half of which appears to be violent in temperament and superhumanly strong. What we don't yet know is whether the visible Niki shares the same body with this invisible persona, or perhaps projects the persona in an astral form. In other words, she may be Dr. Strange, or she may be the Hulk. Time will tell.

  • Character: Peter Petrelli
    Performer: Milo Ventimiglia (Gilmore Girls)
    Occupation: Home care nurse
    Abilities: Not what he thinks at first. For most of the first episode, Peter believes he can fly. In fact, his power is an empathic connection with his older brother Nathan, who actually can fly.

  • Character: Nathan Petrelli
    Performer: Adrian Pasdar (Profit, Mysterious Ways)
    Occupation: Politician
    Abilities: He's the Petrelli sibling who can fly, though he doesn't know it until he has to save his brother, who walks off a rooftop thinking that he's the one who can fly.

  • Character: Isaac Mendez
    Performer: Santiago Cabrera (Empire)
    Occupation: Artist
    Abilities: Experiences precognitive visions that enable him to paint pictures of events before they occur. I'm hopeful that at some point he'll paint the following week's California Super Lotto drawing, or the finish line of Friday's fifth race at Golden Gate Fields.
Although they don't make their debut appearances until future episodes, this random collective of superfolks will eventually include:
  • Character: Matt Parkman
    Performer: Greg Grunberg (Alias)
    Occupation: Police officer
    Abilities: Telepathy

  • Character: D. L. Hawkins
    Performer: Leonard Roberts (Drumline)
    Occupation: Incarcerated felon
    Abilities: Phasing through solid matter
Tying the group together are Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy), a genetic researcher from India whose late father may have held the key to these superhuman manifestations, and Simone Devereaux (Tawny Cypress — one of the coolest names in show business, right up there with Kimber Rickabaugh), a beautiful young woman with personal connections to several of the other characters.

Based upon the first episode, I'm pleased with the development of the series thus far. All of the characters are intriguing in their various ways, and the creators have built a nice sense of mystery into the show by not displaying all of the surprises at once. We know just enough about the protagonists and their powers to want to learn more about them. And, as noted earlier, it was a smart move not to cram all of the intros into the first installment.

A caveat: Heroes, though comic book-influenced, is not kid stuff. In the first show alone, we witness several horrifically violent incidents, most of them involving the indestructible Claire, who tests her newfound talents by (a) hurling herself face-first off a grain elevator, earning herself a dislocated shoulder and compound rib fractures; (b) running into a burning warehouse, setting herself on fire in the process; and (c) plunging her hand into a garbage disposal while the device is in operation, mangling said appendage in gruesome fashion.

Remember, children, superheroes are professionals. Don't try these stunts at home.

Heroes gave me more than enough reason in Hour One to keep it on my Monday night schedule. I recommend that viewers who love the heroic fantasy genre (and sport strong stomachs) check it out — better sooner than later, as I suspect the show will become more difficult to follow for those who join the narrative in progress.

Don't make me have to whip out my katana on you.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Tales of Hoffman

Trevor Hoffman, the relief ace for the San Diego Padres, is now baseball's all-time leader in saves.

Yeah, it struck me as odd, too.

I suppose that's a tribute to Hoffman's gritty, workmanlike, just-doing-my-job-ma'am pitching style. You can also consider the fact that Hoffman isn't a dominating power pitcher (and hasn't been since the late 1990s) or a terribly imposing presence on the mound (the Padres list his height as six feet even, but I've seen Hoffman up close and in person, and I believe they're fading him an inch or two).

Whatever the reasons, I've been an avid follower of National League baseball, and the National League West in particular, since Hoffman was in knee pants, and I had no idea he was that close to setting the all-time record. He just never seems that good.

The evidence, however, is irrefutable. Every season since 1995 — with the exception of the 2003 campaign, when he underwent shoulder surgery and only pitched a total of nine innings — Hoffman has logged a minimum of 31 saves per year. He's had eight seasons in which he's saved 40 or more games, topped by his career-high 53 saves in 1998. That's including the 43 saves Hoffman has racked up thus far this year, to lead the National League.

And I never realized he was doing it.

Contrast that with the ever-spectacular Barry Bonds, who this past weekend notched a new career record for home runs by a National League batter. The only thing that surprised anyone about that was the fact that the career record for home runs by a National League batter wasn't 755.

(People forget that record-setter Hank Aaron played out the string his last two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, who were in the American League at the time. As a result, he has 22 homers on his career tally that don't count toward his National League total. Thus, Bonds — who has played his entire career to date in the National League — only needed 734 to break Aaron's N.L. record.)

One thing Bonds and Hoffman now share in common: They've both got reservations at Cooperstown.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 5767

Happy New Year and L'Chaim to all of SSTOL's Jewish readers! (You know who you are. At least, I hope you do.)

In celebration of Rosh Hashanah — which, for the benefit of my fellow goyim, begins tonight at sunset — today's Comic Art Friday celebrates heroes and heroines of the Hebrew persuasion. If you're an SSTOL regular, you've seen both of today's artworks on previous occasions, but feel welcome to enjoy them again on this New Year's Eve/Day (depending upon what time of day you read this).

This first piece is a favorite from my ever-growing "Common Elements" series, featuring pairs of unrelated heroes who share some factor in common. On the left, one of the most influential creations in the history of comics: Denny Colt, a.k.a. The Spirit. On the right, the first mainstream superheroine to openly acknowledge her Jewish faith: Katherine "Kitty" Pryde, a.k.a. Shadowcat, of the X-Men and Excalibur.

The common element I had in mind when putting Denny and Kitty together actually isn't their religion, but their code names. Early in her superheroic career, before settling on the Shadowcat identity (though she's often referred to in the comics simply by her real name) Kitty used the nom de guerre Sprite, which (not surprisingly) derives from the same linguistic root as Spirit.

When asked about The Spirit's background, his creator Will Eisner always stated that he never specifically thought of The Spirit as a Jewish character, and certainly never intended to portray him as such. However, the legendary cartoonist and comics historian Jules Feiffer, who began his career as Eisner's assistant, has written concerning the blue-suited hero, "His name may have been Denny Colt, but you knew it had been Cohen at some point."

Probably the most identifiably Jewish heroes in comics are the two pictured in the following drawing by longtime industry stalwart Rich Buckler. Another of my Common Elements pieces, this one portrays a clash of titans: The Thing (real name: Benjamin Jacob Grimm), the rock-skinned powerhouse of the Fantastic Four, and Sabra (real name: Ruth Bat-Seraph), the national superheroine of Israel.

Although Ben Grimm, the blue-eyed, ever-lovin' Thing, has been a major star in the superhero firmament since 1961, fans weren't universally aware that he was Jewish (though his name certainly offered a clue) until 2002, when writer Karl Kesel and artists Stuart Immonen and Scott Koblish created a Fantastic Four story designed to reveal Ben's religion to the world at large. In this tale (Fantastic Four, Volume 3, Issue 56), The Thing prays the Sh'ma, a Hebrew prayer customarily offered at death, over a wounded friend from his childhood, a shop owner named Sheckerberg. Later, after Sheckerberg recovers from his injuries Ben and the man share a poignant exchange:
Sheckerberg: It's good, too, to see that you haven't forgetten what you learned at temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mention you're Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little.

Ben: Nah, that ain't it. Anyone on the Internet can find out, if they want. It's just... I don't talk it up, is all. Figure there's enough trouble in this world without people thinkin' Jews are all monsters like me.
Which raises a point worth considering. Anyone who knows anything about the history of comic books in general, and the superhero genre specifically, knows that the founders of the industry were young Jewish men. The costumed hero by whom all others are measured, Superman, was the brainchild of a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Likewise, most of the linchpins in the Marvel Comics canon, from the Fantastic Four to the X-Men, were created by writer-editor Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) — the latter of whom also cocreated (with another Jewish writer-artist, Joe Simon) Captain America in the early 1940s.

Yet, even though comics began as an industry overwhelmingly perpetuated by Jewish talent, it wasn't until relatively recently that there were any openly Jewish superheroes in mainstream comics. As we've seen, it took 40 years for Marvel Comics to officially acknowledge that one of their best-known and most beloved heroes was a Jew.

It's frightening to realize that the roots of bigotry burrow so deep into the American psyche that for decades, the authors of a popular entertainment medium couldn't promote to a general audience characters who openly shared their creators' heritage.

And that's your Comic Art Friday for this Rosh Hashanah 5767. L'Shana Tova!


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Speak of the devil

Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, referred to President G. W. Bush as "the devil" in his address before the United Nations General Assembly yesterday. According to Hugo, he could still smell the sulfur fumes in the air from Bush's U.N. appearance on Tuesday.

Memo to Señor Chavez:

Gee, thanks, Hugo. Now's a fine time to point this out. Couldn't you have revealed this crucial bit of information before we elected the guy — twice?

I mean, if I knew that your country's president was evil incarnate, I'd tell you the instant I found out.

But of course, if Venezuela's president was the devil, that would mean that you...


Never mind.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"...And they was right."

That action-comedy star Jackie Chan confesses to having performed (if you'll pardon the expression) in a Hong Kong porn film 30 years ago is not particularly funny.


Costarring with Chan in the aforementioned porn film?

Sammo Hung.

Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

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Shock therapy

According to Us Weekly, music producer Clive Davis has corraled professional train wreck Courtney Love into helping singer Whitney Houston clean up from her "decline into a drug hell."

That doesn't seem like a sound strategy to me.

Here's a pop quiz...

Courtney Love helping you deal with your drug addiction is like:
  1. Louie Anderson helping you with your diet.

  2. Paul Reubens working with you on your child pornography fetish.

  3. Marilyn Manson giving you fashion and makeup tips.

  4. Shopping for toupées with Elton John.

  5. All of the above.


The Swan Tunes In: Smith

There was a time when, in my infancy as a pop culture-devouring tadpole, that I felt compelled to sample every new series when the fall television season began. Those days are long gone. For several reasons, not the least of which is that I don't any longer have either the time or the patience to invest. (Another is that I've learned to better identify — without actually viewing it — the programming that simply isn't going to appeal to my sensibilities. For example, I don't enjoy sitcoms, so I don't bother with them.)

Still, when the new network offerings debut, I immediately develop a mental checklist of the shows I want to try out at least once. As these random taste-tests yield results, I'll share them here.

Last night, CBS presented ("with limited commercial interruption") the premiere episode of Smith, a stark and seductive crime drama headlined by Ray Liotta (who, every time I see him, still makes me think of his eerie portrayal of Frank Sinatra in The Rat Pack). Liotta plays Robert "Bobby" Stevens, a master thief who's sort of the dark side of George Clooney's Danny Ocean from Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's [Insert Number Here] films. In every episode, Bobby and his coterie of high-tech pilferers pull off — or, I'm guessing, in some instances fail to pull off — a major heist, while juggling civilian lives and family responsibilities.

Liotta is buttressed by a supporting cast as stellar as any on the tube:
  • Virginia (Sideways) Madsen is Bobby's long-suffering wife Hope, who herself is a paroled felon and a recovering drug addict.

  • Simon (The Guardian) Baker is Jeff, the triggerman in Bobby's gang. As we learn in his introductory scene in the pilot episode, Jeff has a bit of a problem with anger management: Two hardcases shoo him off a private Hawaiian beach during an afternoon of surfing, and Jeff rewards them by shooting them both in the head with a high-powered rifle.

  • Jonny Lee (Trainspotting) Miller is Tom, the more reasonable yin to Jeff's loose-cannon yang. In a scene reminiscent of (and perhaps an homage to) the opening of Ocean's Eleven, Tom walks out of prison after being a guest of the state and finds his old partner Jeff awaiting him in a sweet ride.

  • Amy (Varsity Blues) Smart is Annie, the stereotypical stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold who acts as the decoy and token feminine pulchritude for the crew. Annie and Tom are a couple, celebrating the renewal of their relationship following Tom's penitentiary stint by becoming the newest inductees into the Mile High Club.

  • Franky G is Joe, the team's wheelman and mechanic — essentially a reprise of the role Mr. G played in The Italian Job.

  • Shohreh (House of Sand and Fog) Aghdashloo is Charlie, the mysterious figure who arranges assignments for Bobby and company. No, she doesn't communicate from a speaker phone, and no, she doesn't sound at all like John Forsythe.
As would be expected from the personnel, the performances in Smith are spot-on. For the benefit of the small screen, Liotta reins in his occasional over-the-top tendencies and just lets his natural charisma take over. Madsen, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, is quietly luminous in what could prove to be the most thankless role in the cast. Baker and Miller do a nice job of playing against type — the safe and easy route would have been to assign each the other's role. The rest of the cast is equally fine.

The challenge for Smith will be to keep the scripts at the same high level as the acting. Constructing a complicated heist can be an exercise in cleverness when you only need to do it once every few years for a motion picture. The same thing week after week could rapidly exhaust the show's freshness potential, unless the writers can invent other directions in which to take the storylines. Already, it looks as though the plan is to stir in an element of The Fugitive, with a pair of FBI agents on the trail of the gang of thieves led by the unknown mastermind the Feds code-name "Smith."

Fortunately, there's solid potential for long-term success here. Clearly, the tightrope relationship between Bobby and Hope — who takes a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to her husband's nefarious activities — will be a highlight of the series, offering opportunity for Liotta and Madsen to strut their stuff. The rest of the regular characters have been provided adequate backstory to make them rounded and realistic — if not terribly likable — people with complex, interesting lives beyond crime.

That likability factor may be a tough nut for the show to crack, though. No one in Smith is a good guy. These are bad people doing bad business, and at least in the first episode, the show doesn't flinch from that violent reality. We see the series regulars threaten, injure, and even kill people — up close and personal — during the commission of their crimes. (A scene in which Smart's character coolly blasts an annoying woman bystander in the chest with a Tazer shot icicles down the back of my neck.) Unpleasant, unheroic lead characters can be a hard sell in series television. (Just ask Dabney Coleman.) Viewers have to be willing to open their living rooms to these folks week after week, without feeling the need for a shower afterward. Can Liotta and company pull that off?

Smith's pilot episode bought enough of my goodwill to warrant a few more viewings. If you like the Ocean's... films, and can stand more of the same only with less humor and no Clooney, give Smith a look.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Honorary pirates for a day

Avast there, ye scurvy seadogs and curvy wenches! Mind yer step, now — 'tis the good ship SwanShadow ye be boardin'. This here be yer ol' Cap'n Swan, welcomin' ye to this here International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Anyone found not obeyin' the rules will feel the point o' me cutlass, if ye be knowin' what I mean. Don't make me have to walk ye out to the end o' yonder plank... there be sharks in these waters!

So let's go huntin' fer booty. That's right, m'lads and m'lasses, 'tis booty I said. We be minin' the buried treasure from this day's tidings, to name oursel's the Honorary Pirates o' the Day. A salty job it be, but yer ol' Cap'n is just the salt fer the job!
  • Honorary Pirate: Lindsey Lohan. Ah, that Lohan wench took herself a spill, I see. Busted her wrist all to smithereens, she did. Perhaps they'll fittin' her fer a hook! Methinks if she ate her hardtack and squab like a good wench, she might'nt be so fragile.

  • Honorary Pirate: Willie Nelson. Willie, that scurvy son of a sailor, the constables caught him a'smokin' the herb, they did. A pound and a half of the evil weed they found on the scoundrel. And 'shrooms there were — of a kind that make a seafarin' man see mermaids, if he's of a mind to. That Willie, a pirate he ought to be!

  • Honorary Pirate: Nutcase to be named later. What be eatin' this scalawag who crashed his vehicle in front o' the U.S. Capitol and fled inside brandishin' a pistol? Said the demons were after him, he did. Yer daft, man — it be Congress; the demons are already inside the buildin', they are.

  • Honorary Pirates: Run-DMC. Aye, it appears those hornpipers in The Knack are suin' the suspenders off Run-DMC fer stealin' samples of their song "My Sharona." O'course, it be 20 years ago that the thievin' rappers pulled off the swipe for their hit "It's Tricky." Gettin' away with the crime for a score o' years... now that's piracy, lads!

  • Honorary Pirate: Christopher Tolkien. Purloined an ancient manuscript o' his pappy's, did Chris the knave, and scribbled himself upon it until a complete book he made, he did. Not enough talent to dream up a book o' his own, surmises Cap'n Swan.

  • Honorary Pirate: Scarlett Johannson. Manhandled on the red carpet she was, by that bilge rat Isaac Mizrahi, an' now the sharp-tongued wench be boastin' about her buxom frame, she be. "I feel lucky to have what I've got," says she. Aye, an' she be sportin' a pair o' ripe casabas from the Caribbee, it appears to these old eyes. Shiver me timbers!

  • Honorary Pirate: the late Mickey Hargitay. Alas, Mickey, we hardly knew ye. But for marryin' that consumately curvy wench Jayne Mansfield, and for fatherin' yet another of our favorite curvy wenches, Mariska Hargitay, we salute the departed swashbuckler with a tip o' the sailor's cap and a raisin' of the grog. Rest in peace, ye worthy pirate. Remember, dead men tell no tales.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Get your pirate on!

Just a friendly reminder from your old Cap'n Swan that tomorrow is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, a holiday proudly and respectfully observed here at SSTOL.

In the event that you require assistance in preparing your vocal apparatus and vocabulary for this signal event, kindly refer to this helpful instructional video, which will provide ample guidance.

We'll see you scurvy dogs here tomorrow, in full official regalia. And remember, International Talk Like a Pirate Day means half-price admission for all wenches, buxom and otherwise. Bring a friend!


To Eris is human

Now that the dust has settled on the whole "Is Pluto a planet?" business (the official answer, in case you hadn't been following the latest motions and shakings of the International Astronomical Union, is a resounding "no"), it's time to give everyone's new favorite trans-Neptunian object — heretofore designated as 2003 UB313 — a real live name.

To the chagrin of Lucy Lawless fans everywhere, that name is Eris, after the goddess of chaos in Greek mythology. Or, if you want to get technical, it's 136199 Eris, due to the fact that as a dwarf planet, Eris also is assigned a number, as is the case with asteroids and other subplanetary solar system objects.

The trio of astronomers who discovered Eris three years ago had nicknamed the object Xena, after the character played by Lawless on the once-popular TV adventure series. Scientists in general being a stuffy bunch, the IAU turned up its collective nose at the idea of a major astronomical find (Eris is larger than Pluto, the body formerly known as the ninth planet) being named after the scantily clad heroine of a defunct entertainment program. However, in assigning the name Eris to the dwarf planet and the name Dysnomia (the Greek word for "lawlessness") to its tiny moon, the IAU proved that even science geeks with telescopes can sport a sense of humor once in a great while.

Lawless, the erstwhile Warrior Princess, was busy tuning up her vocal chords for the next episode of Celebrity Duets and was unable for comment.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

We don't need no stinking Geneva Convention

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, and I rarely agree on anything* — a fact that likely isn't causing either of us any lost sleep — but I was glad to hear him say on Face the Nation this morning that President Bush's attempt to backdoor the Geneva Convention in the name of his War on Terror (which is really a War on Bad Stuff Being Written About George W. Bush in History Textbooks, but that's another post) is a morally bankrupt idea.

Actually, morally bankrupt was mine. I think Lindsey just said it was bad.

Graham did, however, make the correct and cogent argument that if the United States fancies itself the world's moral leader, we only fuel the fire of our enemies by playing the hypocrite on the "secret trials" (read that: "secret torture") issue. As the Senator put it, if an American citizen was convicted by a foreign power based upon evidence that was withheld from the accused and/or his legal counsel, we as a nation would be up in arms. Therefore, we can't be seen engaging in that kind of treatment of the citizens of other countries.

Were I a member of the White House press corps, I'd pin the President to the wall on this matter with a single question, plus a follow-up:
Mr. President, without making public any of the specific details of your secret trial plan, would you simply tell us whether the plan involves American agents doing anything to detainees that we would not wish to have done to our own personnel if captured?
Assuming His Nibs answered the question in the affirmative — hey, I like to give a guy the benefit of the doubt — my follow-up would be:
Mr. President, knowing that you consider yourself a Christian, how would you reconcile that answer with the words of Jesus: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"?
Even though the President apparently considers himself exempt from the Geneva Convention, I'd hope he isn't so far gone that he considers himself exempt from the Golden Rule.

*Actually, I believe both Graham and I root for Air Force in collegiate football. But that's about it.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

It's time to play... the Family Feud!

This week, the newly revamped Family Feud premiered in syndication. The game hasn't changed, of course — it's still "We surveyed 100 people and got the top [insert number here] answers to this question..." The set, however, has been gussied up with some flashy new graphic elements in welcome of the show's new host, erstwhile Dancing with the Stars champion and Seinfeld repertory player John O'Hurley, the poor man's George Hamilton.

Overall, any refreshing change to the decidedly retro Feud would be welcome, though I doubt they'll entice new viewers in sufficient numbers to boost the Feud back into the lofty ratings it once enjoyed. O'Hurley — whose surname likely precluded any possibility of a career in the food and beverage industry — makes a fine game show host (he previously starred on the short-lived revival of To Tell the Truth a few years back), though his urbane approach seems an odd match for the uptempo Feud. (I classify game shows as having "loud" or "quiet" personalities. Loud shows encourage contestants to scream when they score points and bounce around like maniacs when they win. Quiet shows maintain a more serene level of decorum throughout. Family Feud is a loud show.)

In a bit of a throwback to the glory days of original Feud host Richard Dawson, O'Hurley arrives on camera wearing a stylish, impeccably tailored suit. His raised eyebrow and cool, slightly arch demeanor suggests that he finds the whole proceedings a trifle silly. This marks a stark contrast to his immediate predecessor, former Home Improvement sidekick Richard Karn, who affected a business-casual wardrobe and an earnest, almost overeager friendliness, and the guy Karn replaced, comedian Louie Anderson, who always seemed to be searching for the exit — or perhaps the buffet — from the moment he appeared on stage.

On a quiet show like To Tell the Truth, O'Hurley was a perfect fit (he wouldn't be a bad choice for Jeopardy! if/when Alex Trebek retires). As smoothly effective as he is on Feud, he seems a shade out of kilter with the tone of the show. That dissonance may tone down as the season progresses, and both O'Hurley and the production team reach some form of equilibrium.

One change that definitely needs to be rethought: The reinstatement of the old-school "family portrait" posed introduction for the contestant families. The bit worked fine back in the day, when the set was decorated to look like a needlepoint sampler and the poses tied into the theme. Now, with the ultramodern set and space-age CGI graphics, viewers who don't recall the original series (or needlepoint samplers, for that matter) will only wonder what the heck those people are doing.

Two hilarious moments from the new Feud's first week:
O'Hurley: Name something you can use to make a bath sexier.
Male contestant: Some of that 401(k) jelly.
I didn't know my retirement plan covered that sort of thing. Neither did O'Hurley, who almost broke up at this one.
O'Hurley: We asked 100 men — name something you put on to be sexy.
Female contestant: Cowboy boots.
If you put on cowboy boots to be sexy, you just might be a redneck.

Survey said both of the above answers rated a big fat goose egg, for those of you scoring at home.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Of kids and comics

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to Eisner Award-winning writer-artist Kyle Baker, a magnificently diverse talent who has drawn everything from superheroes (the Captain America riff Truth) to noir suspense (The Shadow) to classic literature (Through the Looking Glass) to historical drama (Nat Turner) to the Bible (King David), but is best known for humor (Plastic Man, the autobiographical family comedy The Bakers). If you pop over to his official Web site, you can enjoy a veritable potpourri of Baker's work, both in print and animation.

Kyle Baker's on my mind because of an interview published by Wizard, the fanboy bible, this week, wherein Baker laments the increasing scarcity of all-ages comic book fare:
I think it's shortsighted. I think it's wonderful that there's more variety in books and there are things like Dark Knight. I'm a big fan of Alan Moore and all that stuff, but you really do need to have some stuff for kids. And just from an economic standpoint, at the end of the day, kids spend more money on cartoon products. Spongebob makes so much more money than Superman does. They're really missing the boat. That's my opinion.
Ironically, ample evidence exists to demonstrate that all-ages comics and comic-based animation can succeed today, if marketed well. Anyone who's seen any of the various DC Comics animated series produced during the past 15 years, from Batman: The Animated Series to Justice League Unlimited, knows that it's still possible to make superhero action fantasy that's both accessible to kids and relevant to adults.

What's often forgotten about comics is that, until Dr. Frederic Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent rocked the comics industry in the 1950s, comics weren't thought of as exclusively a medium for children. During the World War II years, comics readership was comprised not only of kids, but also of American military personnel. (Which is why, if you check out comics from the early '40s, you'll discover a level of violence in the books that didn't fully resurface until the late 1980s. In their earliest incarnations, characters such as Batman and the Spectre killed their opponents with alarming frequency.) The EC horror comics of the '50s that Wertham demonized were not intended as children's fare, even though they appeared in the same medium as — and coexisted with — Disney's classic Donald Duck adventures.

Today, the scale has skewed in the opposite direction. Comics are now almost exclusively targeted at an audience of adolescent to young adult males. Most superhero books today aren't appropriate reading for preteens. With the exception of a few survivors like the Archie Comics line, comics for kids are so thoroughly marginalized that they almost don't exist. Which means that, as the comics audience of young men ages, without an influx of new readers, the industry is slowing choking to death.

Okay, not so pretty a picture. So let's look at an artwork that celebrates comics' crossover appeal. It's a fun pinup by artist Wilson "Wunan" Tortosa (Tomb Raider, Battle of the Planets), featuring two of the stars of the animated Justice League series, Green Lantern and Hawkgirl.

The relationship between Green Lantern (real name: John Stewart) and Hawkgirl (real name: Shayera Hol) in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited perfectly illustrates the success the series achieved in melding kid-friendliness and adult sensibility. Not only does the couple share a stormy romance over the course of several seasons, they also deal with a lover's triangle (when Green Lantern becomes involved with another League member, Vixen) and even discover that they have a child together in the future (who grows up to be a superhero named Warhawk).

This, in the context of an animated show kids can enjoy, even if the relationship stuff sails over their heads, much like the Marvel Comics of the 1960s. (Never mind the fact that we see a love affair between a black man and a white woman — okay, Shayera is really an alien who looks like a Caucasian human, but then, so is Superman — and no one even bats an eye.)

Here's hoping that comics publishers figure out that, for their business to survive, they'll have to reach out not only to the fans they already have, but also to the next generation. As for those creators, such as Kyle Baker, who have already tumbled to this essential truth, may their tribe increase.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

It's not the weekend yet, but I can see it from here

It's Post-Hump Day, so it's all downhill from this point. Your Uncle Swan's about to lead you on a madcap romp through the pop culture headlines of the week. Bring your sunscreen, and keep your autograph book and Sharpie at the ready.
  • Britney and K-Fed unleashed another baby boy on an unsuspecting world on Tuesday. Time to invest in that new double-wide... and maybe to Google "contraception."

  • Whitney Houston has filed for divorce from husband Bobby Brown. The course of true love, spousal abuse, and massive cocaine ingestion never did run smooth.

  • Speaking of splitsville, Christie Brinkley is dumping her architect hubby Peter Cook after discovering that he was tapping a teenaged employee at work. I guess now Christie understands how Ellen Griswold felt.

  • I'm not saying this is what happened — I wasn't anywhere near the Bahamas last weekend — but wouldn't it be bizarre if Anna Nicole Smith had her older son bumped off so that she wouldn't have to divide her brand-new baby's inheritance? I smell a Lifetime Movie brewing there. Or at least, a Law & Order "ripped from the headlines" episode.

  • An actual dead body was discovered on the set of CSI: New York on Tuesday. If this had happened on the set of the original CSI, Grissom and company would have solved the murder by now. If it had happened on the set of CSI: Miami, we'd have been treated to David Caruso muttering through his teeth and donning his sunglasses.

  • By the way, am I the only one who finds it hilarious that all three CSI shows, despite their varied locales, are shot in metropolitan Los Angeles? Yeah, probably.

  • Everyone's all up in Lindsay Lohan's grille lately. In the past month, she's been publically criticized by Jane Fonda, William H. Macy, and Rosie O'Donnell. If this pressure keeps building, I predict that L-Lo will be off the feedbag again soon.

  • Apparently not content with having bastardized one Dr. Seuss classic into a tedious exercise in self-indulgence, Jim "The Grinch" Carrey now plans to star in the animated film version of Horton Hears a Who.
    I will not watch it with a fox.
    I will not play it on my box.
    I'll not support this vexing ham.
    I do not like him, Sam-I-Am.

  • Sharon Osbourne is launching a line of cosmetic products. Says Mrs. Ozzfest: "I get asked all the time how I stay looking good and what makeup I wear." Yeah, but, Sharon... the people asking are planning their next Halloween party.

  • Alanis Morissette has signed to play Roma Maffia's lesbian lover on an upcoming episode of Nip/Tuck. In her previous appearance on series television, Alanis shared a kiss with Sarah Jessica Parker during a game of spin-the-bottle on Sex and the City. Man, she really is still smarting from the whole Dave Coulier thing, isn't she?

  • Thanks to a judge's ruling, Sean "Puffy / Puff Daddy / P. Diddy / Just Plain Diddy" Combs can't brand himself as Diddy in the United Kingdom, because a British hip-hop performer was using that name first. My suggestion? Sean should call himself by a handle that would represent the quality of his music. How about Doody?

  • Also on the stage name front, wrestling superstar turned actor (or is that redundant?) The Rock has apparently decided that, in order to be taken seriously as a thespian, he should bill himself by his real name, Dwayne Johnson. Because nothing says "serious" like a guy named Dwayne.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Twelve magical voices

The other day, I was driving my wife's car and I popped Kimberley Locke's One Love into the CD player. Of course, I've heard her single "8th World Wonder" on the radio a few dozen times, but this was the first time I'd listened to the album all the way through.

The verdict: Many (maybe most) of the songs sucked harder than a Dyson Animal, but the voice? K-Lo can sing. She was easily the most talented female vocalist American Idol has produced to date — yeah, I've heard Kelly Clarkson, and I'm sure you'll pardon my yawn — and was in fact a better singer than either of the two guys who outpointed her the year she competed.

Which got me thinking about other female vocalists whose voices rock my world. I came up with a dozen. They're in alpha order, because I'd be rearranging the list for weeks if I tried to do it any other way.
  1. Pat Benatar. Awesome pipes come in petite packages. Imitated often, from the '80s until now, but never equaled. She could easily be dismissed as just another screaming rocker chick, but Pat's opera-trained voice soars miles above the rest. Essential performances: "We Live for Love," "Heartbreaker," "Treat Me Right," "We Belong," "Invincible."

  2. Belinda Carlisle. Heaven is a place on earth where Go-Go's records are in nonstop play. Essential performances: (with the Go-Go's) "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed," (solo) "Heaven is a Place on Earth," "I Get Weak."

  3. Karen Carpenter. I can crack as many anorexia jokes as the next blogger, but the woman possessed an instrument — a warm, rich mezzosoprano — that can only be described as divine. Ask any ten female vocalists who truly know their craft to write down the greatest voices of the pop/rock era, and Karen Carpenter's name will be on nine of the lists, if not all ten. (Karen was also a superlative drummer, just in case you didn't know that.) Essential performances: "Superstar," "We've Only Just Begun," "For All We Know," "Solitaire."

  4. Roberta Flack. Scary good. Go back and listen to "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" or "Killing Me Softly with His Song," and if the hair doesn't stand up on the back of your neck, call the undertaker. Essential performances: "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "Killing Me Softly with His Song," "Feel Like Makin' Love," "The Closer I Get to You."

  5. Aretha Franklin. Well, yeah. They don't call her the Queen of Soul for kicks and giggles. Taught all of the rest what it was all about. Essential performances: "Respect," "Think," "Chain of Fools," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Until You Come Back to Me."

  6. Billie Holiday. Sadly, Lady Blue's personal demons and addictions ruined her angelic voice long before she was finished using it. But when she had it, she had it all. Perhaps the most influential name on this list, after Aretha, despite her middling output. Essential performances: "Strange Fruit," "Summertime," "You Go to My Head," "Body and Soul."

  7. Whitney Houston. Sadly, Whitney's personal demons and addictions ruined her angelic voice long before... say, didn't I just write this? It's criminal what she's done to her career — and herself — in recent years, but in her prime, no one else ever wielded a pipe as powerful, as brilliantly controlled, or as sparkling as Whitney's. Essential performances: "Saving All My Love For You," "How Will I Know?" "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," "I Will Always Love You."

  8. Annie Lennox. Sweet dreams are made of her incredible singing. One of the most amazingly fluid and expressive alto voices I've ever heard, in any genre. Who else could go vocal chord-to-vocal chord with Aretha Franklin, and hold her own? Essential performances: (with Eurythmics) "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," "Here Comes the Rain Again," "Would I Lie to You?" (solo) "Walking on Broken Glass," "No More I Love You's."

  9. Bonnie Raitt. Perhaps better known as a guitarist — the finest female bottleneck blues guitarist ever recorded, in fact — but Bonnie has the pipes to match her picking. Deserves to be a much bigger star than she is. Essential performances: "Nick of Time," "Something to Talk About," "I Can't Make You Love Me," "You Got It."

  10. Sade. No need to ask — the erstwhile Helen Folasade Adu is one smooth operator. One of the sexiest voices imaginable, she caresses every lyric and seduces every melodic line like an accomplished lover. Essential performances: "Your Love Is King," "Smooth Operator," "The Sweetest Taboo," "Never As Good As The First Time."

  11. Nina Simone. There's a reason why, despite her relatively unknown status in her native United States, filmmakers continue to plug her songs into the soundtracks of their films: No one else sounds like Nina Simone, and no one else had better try. A unique talent, criminally underappreciated. Essential performances: "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," "I Put a Spell on You," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," "Sinnerman."

  12. Ann Wilson. The lead-singing half of the sister duo at the heart of Heart (although guitarist Nancy is a pretty fair singer herself), Dreamboat Annie deserves a lofty place in the pantheon of rock's greatest vocalists. Essential performances: "Crazy On You," "Barracuda," "Dog and Butterfly," "These Dreams," "Who Will You Run To?"

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Monday, September 11, 2006

How fragile we are

Some called it "the day that changed America forever."

Five years ago today, a band of nineteen outlaws piloted jet airplanes into New York City’s World Trade Center and the seat of American military power, the Pentagon. Another jet, bound for the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. plowed into a field in Pennsylvania. At the end of the day, 3,000 lives had been lost, the second and third tallest buildings in the United States had been reduced to rubble, and a nation had been traumatized.

As the fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001 arrives, what’s changed?

Not much, it seems. Want proof? Think about it — what was the biggest story in the news this week? The war against al-Qaeda? Airport security? The potential threat of biological or nuclear attack? Nope — what’s had America buzzing the loudest is the unfortunate death of Australian TV personality Steve Irwin, and heiress Paris Hilton’s drunk driving arrest.

In the aftermath of what we have come to call "9/11," life in these United States has continued pretty much apace. Sure, the check-in lines are a little longer at the airport, but in my experience, airport lines have always been interminably long. It takes a few minutes more to enter a ball game or amusement park, and you can’t take as much stuff in with you as you formerly could. I can live with that. I believe most people can. But has the substance of our lives changed? Not so you’d notice.

I don’t mean to minimize the loss experienced by those whose loved ones died in the terrorist attacks. Without question, their lives were irrevocably altered. But in a materially different way than anyone else who’s had a family member murdered, or killed in an accident, or succumbed to a painful illness? Not really, no. Granted, not everyone’s death is replayed ad nauseum on the evening news. But still, death is death, and will be mourned no matter who, or how many, die.

Many speculated that the tragedy of 9/11 would turn more people to religion. Perhaps it did, momentarily — to that brand of religion that offers gentle homilies and smooth platitudes while demanding no true moral conversion or spiritual growth. That effect, like the effect of all self-centered and materially based religion, fades quickly, like dew evaporating off the hood of a car in summer. I haven't seen any evidence that more people are seeking genuine truth, or that people have been motivated to significantly change their approach to spiritual things. We remain as shallow and superficial a people as we ever were.

Which is too bad, really.

Human beings are remarkably — or perhaps the word is notoriously — reluctant to change. We manifest an uncanny resistance against doing or becoming anything different from what we’ve always done or been. Even the most horrific events in the world around us rarely improve us for very long. And even the sternest warnings of possible disaster fail to cause us to redirect our behavior.

We always seek the silver lining in dark clouds, the happy outcome of every tragic event. That’s why, I think, Americans want to believe that the evil perpetrated on September 11, 2001 has made us a better country. We’d like to hope that out of such bitter catastrophe some good might come. First, though, we’d have to be willing to change.

And that, my friends, ain't gonna happen.

I still believe Sting said it best...

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime's argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star
Like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are
How fragile we are

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Oh, Brazil!

It's Comic Art Friday, and it's also a swamped-to-the-gills workday for yours truly. So what say we just dive right in?

Insular as we are, we often forget that some of the premier artistic talents in comics today hail from outside the friendly confines of these United States. There are tremendous communities of comic artists thriving in such far-off locales as Brazil and the Philippines, just to name two.

Speaking of Brazil... from that Amazonian land comes this gorgeous, classically styled pinup of Ms. Zinda Blake, better known to the world by the code name Lady Blackhawk. This striking image leaps from the pen of artist Di Amorim, best known on these shores for his work on the Lady Death series.

One of my favorite Brazilian artists — I just can't eyeball enough of this man's work — is Al Rio. Al has drawn numerous titles for comics publishers large and small here in the U.S., but he's probably most closely associated with the Image Comics series Gen13 and DV8, DC Comics' Extreme Justice, and Chaos Comics' Purgatori. Al is such an amazing artist that even his preliminary sketches look fantastic — this Mary Marvel piece, for example.

Both Amorim and Rio are represented in the States by delightful gentlemen who are themselves collectors and fans of comic art. Amorim's rep is Court Gebeau at ComiCon Art, while Rio's is Terry Maltos at Al Rio Art. Each of these fellows is as pleasant to deal with as can be, and I always enjoy transacting business with them.

Of course, the fact that I always end up with some spectacular art doesn't hurt the relationships, either.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Now back to work... if not back to Brazil.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Sned yur childern to skool hear!

If you — as do I — lament the state of English language instruction in today's America, you'll weep with me at this.

(Or laugh. Your choice.)

The church around the corner from my house operates a private elementary school on its campus. Below is their marquee sign as it appears this very afternoon. I'm not certain that you'd want your kids learning their three R's in this environment.

Now that's "priceless."

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Today's Visual You Didn't Need

Am I ever feeling old and out of touch today.

But then, perhaps it's not entirely my fault. You be the judge.

When I read this headline on the San Francisco Chronicle Web site: "Madden Dating Monk?"

...can I really blamed if, instead of thinking of these people...

...I immediately thought of these people?

Excuse me while I go rinse my eyes with sulfuric acid.

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My career guide to Vegas

Seeing as how Las Vegas is one of my three or four favorite cities in the United States — one to which I might be tempted to retire someday, were it not for the fact that (a) I'm not retiring anywhere it gets 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime, and (b) I doubt I'll ever have enough spare cash on hand to retire anywhere, period — I was intrigued by this article in the Las Vegas Business Press describing "The Coolest Jobs in Las Vegas."

Then I saw what the jobs were.

My bubble of hope plunged to earth like a lead zeppelin.

Let's examine the reasons why I'll never have any of the coolest jobs in Vegas.

Women's golf coach, UNLV. Here's everything I know about golf: Tiger Woods. Annika Sorenstam. "A good walk spoiled." Tiger Woods. The Davis Cup. No, wait, that's tennis. The Ryder Cup. Tiger Woods. Plaid slacks. Green jackets. Tiger Woods. Tin Cup. Windmills. Volcanoes. Tiger Woods. Did I say Annika Sorenstam already? Yeah, I did. Okay, then. Tiger Woods.

Music promoter, Divebar. Unless Vegas clubgoers dig spending their evenings shaking their moneymakers to four-part a cappella harmonies, '70s/'80s arena rock, Gamble and Huff Philly soul, and Bill Withers's greatest hits, they aren't going to want me booking their house band.

Craftsman, Ed Roman Guitars. I think it's awesome that the fellow who currently has this gig is close personal friends with two of my all-time guitar heroes, Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser of the Blue Öyster Cult and Brian May of Queen. But I flunked out of guitar lessons when I was in the sixth grade, and haven't picked up the instrument since. If I were building their axes, Buck and Brian would sound like that banjo player in Deliverance.

Assistant curator, Dolphin Habitat, The Mirage. I bawled like a schoolgirl when George C. Scott's talking bottlenose squeaked out "Fa love Pa" at the end of Day of the Dolphin. To this day, I can't even look at the critters without getting a little misty. By the end of my first week at the Habitat, I'd be an emotional wreck. Plus, I'd drive everyone crazy by constantly asking when Roy is coming back.

Pirate, Treasure Island. I could almost pull this one off. Unfortunately, I hate parrots, I become seasick easily, and those eye patches itch. Say, did you know that International Talk Like a Pirate Day is September 19? Arrrrr!

Promotions manager, Zia Record Exchange. Do they still make records?

Brewmaster, Monte Carlo Resort. Hey, I'm a teetotaler, remember? The strongest thing I brew is my morning pot of Folgers. And barista at Starbucks isn't on the "cool jobs" list. Besides, the last time I was at the Monte Carlo, Lance Burton whacked me in the face with the monofilament fishing line he was using in one of his cheesy magic tricks. I still owe him one.

VIP host, Studio 54. They'd fire me the night I carded Paris Hilton and sent her to the end of the line.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What's Up With That? #37: Dognapped!

The search is on for a stolen puppy belonging to an eight-year-old cancer patient at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

Chemo the puppy, a 15-week-old Chihuahua/Doberman mix belonging to young Kyle Wetle from Monterey, was taken from Kyle's parents' car on Saturday as it was parked in the medical center's garage.

Three questions arise from this story:

One: What kind of villain steals a dog from a car at a hospital? The first person to respond, "One sick puppy," gets spanked. Hard.

Two: How do you successfully breed a Chihuahua with a Doberman? I'm trying to imagine the logistics involved, and I just can't get there.

Three: Who feeds a puppy Skippy peanut butter and canned corn? Mr. and Mrs. Wetle, judging by the above photograph. (Apparently, Chemo prefers creamy over chunky.)

Here's hoping that whoever snagged little Kyle's dog — and you know who you are, Cruella — brings the pup back soon.

UPDATE, TUESDAY 9/5, 4:30 p.m.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported only moments ago that Chemo has been returned to a happy Kyle Wetle and his family, mere hours after I posted about the puppy's theft.

Once again, the power of the Swan sends the criminal underworld into cowering terror.

Now I just hope Kyle and his folks quit feeding the little mutt peanut butter and corn. Dogs are carnivores, people! At least switch him to chunky, for pity's sake!

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Monday, September 04, 2006

When Barry Bonds leaves town, it's Bye-Bye, Baby

As Barry Bonds sent his 730th career home run (his 22nd this season) over the right-center field wall at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park this evening, I was reminded that even in as mediocre a campaign as this one has been, being a Giants fan is still pretty sweet as long as Bonds is around. And lately, he's been around quite a bit: six round-trippers in his last 12 games, during which time he's hitting .472 (17 hits in 36 at-bats), pumping his batting average from an anemic .235 to a no-longer-embarrassing .263.

Of course, we probably won't have Barry here next year. He'll either retire — now that he's only 25 home runs behind Henry Aaron's record-setting 755, that's looking increasingly improbable — or he'll move over to the American League (probably the Nowhere-Near-Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), where he can focus on chasing Hammerin' Hank without further demolishing his decrepit knees by playing left field five days a week.

Bonds' likely departure means that in 2007, the Giants' marketing department will actually have to sell the team for a change, something they haven't needed to do very much since Barry moved his Hall of Fame parade from the arctic confines of Candlestick Park to the spectacularly picturesque, constantly renamed ballpark at McCovey Cove. For those of us whose Giants obsession predates the arrival of Number 25, the prospect of a serious marketing push by the G-Men is fraught with terror, as we recall some of the lame slogans the team trotted onto the airwaves in years past.
  • "Giants Hang in There!" I believe this campaign from the early '80s was supposed to remind one of those infernal posters so popular once upon a time, which depicted a kitten dangling by its forepaws from some precarious perch. Why the Giants brain trust wanted the team to be viewed as kittenish, or why they didn't tumble to the defeatism inherent in this slogan ("We can't win, but we'll hang in there!" Yeah, I want to spend my hard-earned cash to see that), always escaped me. Nevertheless, this tepid tagline hung in there for a couple of seasons of mediocrity.

  • "Real Grass. Real Sunshine. Real Baseball." This was the Giants' tagline in that fateful 1985 season, when the Men in Orange lost 100 games and a significant portion of their fan base. Recalling that '85 season, I remember that the grass was indeed real. The sunshine was too, as the Giants scheduled a preponderance of day games in an effort to attract folks resistant to the notion of freezing their hindquarters off in the icy night winds of Candlestick. The baseball? Not so real. Not so real good, either, if you'll pardon the grammar.

  • "You Gotta Like These Kids." The 1986 Giants featured a major youth movement, led by rookie first baseman Will "The Thrill" Clark, second baseman Robby Thompson, shortstop Jose Uribe (often referred to as The Player to Be Named Later, because he changed his playing identity from Jose Gonzalez to Uribe Gonzalez to Jose Uribe, all within his first few days with the Giants), and third baseman Chris "The Tin Man" Brown. "You Gotta Like These Kids" didn't promise much on-field success, just a bunch of likeable kids. Sort of like Peanuts.

  • "Humm-Baby!" Then-manager Roger Craig's rallying cry carried the marketing flag for a couple of years. Trust me, as a Giants fan, I got sick of "Humm-Baby!" awfully darned quick. After a while, one just wanted to say, "Humm THIS, baby."

  • "I've Got a Giant Attitude." Cranky-pants baseball, accompanied by the glowering, lampblacked eyes of Will Clark, who did, in fact, have a giant attitude. And not always a good one.

  • "All of Us Are Created Equal. Some of Us Become Giants." Paraphrasing landmark historical documents is never a good marketing plan. This arrogant-sounding tagline from the '90s demonstrates the reason why. Great for political speechmaking, as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King proved. For selling tickets to sporting events, not so much.
In anticipation of the Giants possibly needing a dynamite slogan for a Bonds-less 2007 campaign, I've jotted down a few ideas:
  • "Now 99 and 44/100 Percent Steroid-Free!"

  • "If You Close Your Eyes, It's Like Barry Never Left!"

  • "You Gotta Like These Castoffs From Other Teams!"

  • "Enough of Those Pesky Splash Hits, Already!"

  • "Our Mascot Can Beat Up Their Mascot."

  • "We Got Your Clear and Cream Right Here."

  • "Hey, How About That Ballpark?"
Feel free to help yourselves, Magowan and Company. And if you need more ideas, drop me an e-mail. We'll do lunch.

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

That's why they didn't call him the Stingray Hunter

You knew this would happen eventually...

Naturalist Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter of television and motion picture fame, is dead. A stingray dealt him a lethal spike through the heart during a diving expedition on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

I know. I thought it was a joke too. Apparently, it isn't.

The moral of this story:

It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

She stings.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Maid of Steel

Today, Comic Art Friday salutes the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which first opened to automobile traffic 50 years ago today.

The Richmond-San Rafael Bridge — officially the John F. McCarthy Memorial Bridge, but in my 30 years in the Bay Area, I've never heard anyone call it that — often goes unsung in the shadow of the nearby Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, but at the time of its completion in 1956, it was one of the longest bridges in the world. The RSRB recently completed an extensive seismic retrofit, during which two workers lost their lives.

Some years ago, my car blew a head gasket on the RSRB as the girls and I were traveling to an Oakland Athletics game. We were rescued from the span by a friendly Caltrans tow truck.

So I was thinking...

Honoring a bridge that's made of steel...

...nicely sets the stage for a Comic Art Friday dedicated to the Maid of Steel.

(All bow to the King of Segue!)

One of my favorite superheroines has been enjoying a renaissance of late. Supergirl, famously killed off by DC Comics during the 1985 mega-crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, is now headlining two — count 'em, two — regular series: a revived Supergirl book, written by Joe Kelly and illustrated (most months, anyway) by the team of Ian Churchill (pencils) and Norm Rapmund (inks); and the current incarnation of Legion of Super-Heroes, which, effective with the May 2006 issue, was retitled Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes. The latter book is scripted by Mark Waid, and features the art of Barry Kitson, a talented Brit whose work bears some similarity to that of longtime Justice League penciler Kevin Maguire.

Since Supergirl is undergoing a major upgrade and renewal — not unlike, say, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge — what say we rock a little Kara Zor-El today?

Supergirl, old school: This cute pinup by Michael Dooney reminds me of the Supergirl of the 1960s, when the legendary Jim Mooney (no relation to Michael Dooney) was her primary artist.

Back in the day, Supergirl was cute and fun and every bit as interested in boys as she was in beating up bad guys. In fact, during much of Mooney's run as artist, Supergirl was as much a romance comic as it was a superhero book.

Supergirl, new school: This pen and ink drawing by Brandon Peterson reflects a more modern sensibility. Peterson's take on the Last Daughter of Krypton bears the stamp of artist Jim Lee, probably one of the two or three most influential comics artists of the past 15 years.

It's interesting that even though Peterson's drawing style shows a 21st century edge, he chose to depict Kara in her classic '60s era costume, as did Dooney in the picture above.

Supergirl, flight school: This fun artwork by Ty Romsa shows Kara in her element, soaring above the clouds with the greatest of ease.

Romsa's portrayal of Supergirl is cutting-edge, employing a sleek modern style as well as Kara's current midriff-baring costume. Romsa's Kara also resembles (though probably unintentionally) actress Helen Slater, who played Supergirl in a 1984 feature film costarring Academy Award winner Faye Dunaway and seven-time Oscar nominee Peter O'Toole.

And that's your pre-Labor Day Weekend Comic Art Friday. I'll be grilling large hunks of dead animal flesh this weekend. How about you?